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Peace talks between the government and the Pakistan Taliban began today after a false start earlier this week, as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif comes under increasing domestic pressure to deal decisively with the insurgents.
Members of the Pakistan Taliban (TPP), a loosely organized militant group that is affiliated with but distinct from the Taliban in Afghanistan, have been trying for years to topple the government in Islamabad and establish Islamic rule. Thousands of civilians have been killed since the group rose to prominence in 2007, reports the BBC, and the first month of 2014 saw an uptick in Taliban attacks across the country.
The talks, which were delayed on Tuesday because government negotiators failed to show up, follow a spate of attacks in January that killed scores of civilians and soldiers and intensified demands that Mr. Sharif stem the violence.
Sharif accepted the TPP’s offer to send representatives to discuss a “roadmap” for future peace talks after support began building for a military operation against the militants, leading to confusion about the government’s strategy, Michael Kugelman wrote in The Diplomat this week.
In recent days, Pakistani media reports have revealed that the government and military are planning a full-scale offensive in the tribal areas in March.
On January 27, a majority of parliamentarians from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party voted in favor of a military operation against the TTP. On January 28, a top PML-N official, Rana Sanaullah, declared that the country was “on a war footing.”
But then, the very next day, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the formation of a committee to take another look at peace talks with the TTP. He insists that he won’t authorize an operation in North Waziristan “without consensus of all stakeholders”—even though many opposition leaders, including the fervently pro-talks Imran Khan, have said they’d throw their support behind an offensive.
What’s going on here? The government may be trying to pick a fight with the Pakistani military, which is less enthusiastic about negotiations. Perhaps officials want to launch talks on the assumption that they will fail and therefore help generate more public support for military action. Or maybe Islamabad is just confused, indecisive, or scared (PML-N candidates refused to condemn the TTP during last year’s election campaign, and party officials have even asked the TTP not to attack their Punjab province bastion). Yet one thing is clear: If Pakistan does ultimately implement a more muscular countermilitancy strategy, don’t plan on it being a rousing success. On the contrary, it may create more problems than it solves.
Political commentator Tariq Ali writes in The Guardian that the talks “may produce a temporary cease-fire, but not much more.” He argues that the problem lies with Afghanistan – and Pakistan's determination not to allow Indian influence to build there after international troops withdraw at the end of the year.
However horrific the spate of recent bombings, the heart of the problem remains Afghanistan. It is not the case that the TTP and related networks are so powerful that their leaders cannot be found, captured, charged and punished. The fact is that, with the impending withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan, Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, and its bosses in Pakistan cannot afford to offend the TTP too much. Islamabad has developed the theory of "strategic depth": keeping Afghanistan out of the hands of India's allies as a defensive strategy against India. This was always slightly absurd, given that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers and any serious conflict would be a disaster for both countries.
Also, the Pashtuns in Afghanistan have always resented the British division of their lands and quite a few in Pakistan feel closer to their Afghan brethren than the regimes in Islamabad. The Taliban veil has masked this hostility and given it religious colours, but, underneath it all, the national question remains strong. If a section of the ISI supports the armed networks, it is difficult for other wings of the ISI to close it down.
A lasting solution, which may well not be the one favoured by many Pakistanis, will come after the US and its auxiliaries have left the country. The puppet president, Hamid Karzai, is aware of all this, which is why he has declared: "The Taliban are our brothers," and denounced the British presence in Helmand. He will probably try to promote Pashtun nationalism to weaken Islamabad. The stakes are high for all sides.
Another weakness of the talks is that both sides may simply be stalling, the BBC reports. Representatives on both the government and Taliban negotiating teams “have no real power,” they posit, and the talks are “just talks about talks.” Past negotiating efforts failed.
Some analysts believe the government is simply buying time and that they are actually waiting for July 2014, when US forces withdraw from Afghanistan, creating a scenario whereby Pakistani militants could spill over the border to fight in Afghanistan.
For the Taliban side, sources in the tribal areas say that these talks are also a way of buying time and postponing any possible military intervention in their region.
The Economist (paywall) concurs, writing that the talks are merely a government effort to gain enough time to prepare a military offensive against the TPP.
Yet a growing view is that Mr Sharif really is set on eventual military action, and that talks are about winning time. In the past few months the prime minister has been busy replacing the country’s president, army chief and chief justice. He has tried to keep on good terms with the army—a delicate act with Pervez Musharraf, a former dictator claiming a dodgy heart, on trial for treason. Mr Sharif and the new army chiefs appear to be rubbing along, helped by the fact that his government is a bit less incompetent and crooked than the previous crew. Meanwhile, he has tried to improve the economy and forge ties with India. A lot going on, in other words. Besides, political support for a military push is much harder if talks have not been tried first.